The Alternative Vote: Count me out!

I’m not a fan of the Alternative Vote (AV): the option for voting reform that the coalition government plans to put to the people in a referendum. As the saying goes, it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.

AV’s advocates maintain that it ensures that the winning candidate in an election always obtains a majority of votes cast. Not true: the winning candidate always obtains >50% of the votes cast for all the candidates still in play in the AV counting system – i.e. the two or three candidates that are still in the race after the losing candidates have been eliminated – not >50% of the votes of all those who have cast a vote, although the two are often the same. There may, however, be a sizeable minority of voters who have not indicated any of the leading candidates as their second or subsequent preferences. So their votes are simply ignored: left out of the count, literally counting for nothing.

In my view, then, AV adds insult to the injury of First Past the Post: it makes out that all votes matter; but in fact, if your first and only choice is for one of the smaller parties, not only is that vote as impotent as before, but also it is effectively discounted – eliminated from the final tally. To me, this seems a greater disenfranchisement than FPTP.

Supporters of AV might riposte that the point about the system guaranteeing a true majority is academic and that, in most actual instances of AV polls, the ‘winner’ does obtain over 50% of all the votes cast and not just of those remaining in play. That may be so, but it seems at very least somewhat disingenuous to make such a big thing about AV producing true majorities when this is far from guaranteed. In any case, the point about disenfranchisement is the more substantive one, in my view, as it is this that electoral reform is mainly intended to overcome.

AV is not fit for purpose with respect to addressing that wider concern. Nonetheless, it looks as though AV is what’s on offer for the time being. So my question would be: is there a way AV can be ‘tweaked’ to make it more proportional and less disenfranchising? This would also involve preventing candidates from winning on a minority of all the votes cast while appearing to have gained a majority: the more the result in each seat reflects a true majority, or the largest real plurality, of the votes cast, the more the national election result should be proportional, in that it would reflect the real level of support for each party across different parts of the UK.

My proposal would be that in instances where no candidate wins a true majority under AV, the votes should then be re-counted using the Approval Voting system. I’ve advocated Approval Voting on the pages of this blog before. What this involves is counting every single preference indicated by voters as one vote for that candidate, with all such votes being given equal weight, i.e. with no attempt being made to rank the choices. To objections that this gives disproportionate weight to voters’ least preferred choices, I would reply that this is only what AV does in any case: AV assigns the same weight to some voters’ second, third or subsequent preferences, which it counts as of equal importance to the first preferences of voters who have chosen the leading candidates. This is itself insulting and disenfranchising: some voters’ first preferences are literally given preferential treatment to others’.

The ‘winner’ in an Approval Vote is simply the candidate obtaining the most votes, i.e. the one whom most voters have indicated they are prepared to support in some degree or other. In many, perhaps most, instances, a candidate winning on a minority of all votes cast under AV would also be the winner if the vote is re-counted using the Approval Voting system. But this is not necessarily the case. For example, it is theoretically possible for all candidates to obtain 100% of the vote under the Approval Voting system: if all voters choose all the candidates. However, if those choices are ranked and counted using the AV system, there will be only one winner.

In practice, particularly in two-way or three-way marginals, there could be two or more candidates that would obtain over 50% of the vote if the AV ballot were counted as an Approval Vote; and the candidate obtaining the highest >50% share under Approval Voting could be eliminated using AV. For example, a three-way marginal won by the Conservatives under FPTP with a narrow majority over Labour but a minority of the overall vote, and won by Labour with a thumping ‘overall majority’ under AV (because the second preferences of Lib Dem first-choice voters were mainly for Labour), could well be won by the Lib Dems if the preferences of all voters were counted equally (as an Approval Vote), i.e. if the second preferences of Conservative and Labour first-choice voters were added to the Lib Dems’ total.

Not only could the outcome of elections in marginal constituencies be materially affected by re-counting minority results using the Approval Voting method, but also voters’ actual choices could be altered. If all the preferences of all voters are counted, then they also count for something: there is a point in indicating support for candidates that you know cannot win, because at least your views will be registered and the parties will have to take note.

For example, there is often no point in listing third, fourth or subsequent preferences in an AV ballot, as your first choice is likely to be the party you’d genuinely like to win while the second choice, if any, is your tactical vote: the only candidate with a chance of winning that you are prepared to support. However, you might actually prefer other candidates to your ‘second’ choice; and if there’s a prospect that these choices will also be counted, using the Approval Voting method, then you can carry on listing as many preferences as you like. In fact, ballots could be counted in both ways simultaneously, so that both sets of results can be presented and compared, and the full range of voters’ real preferences can be taken literally into account.

If this meant that winners under AV obtaining a ‘real’ majority of all votes cast were seen to have ‘lost’ under the Approval System, then I’m not suggesting that those results should be reversed, as I’m proposing Approval Voting only as a modification to AV in cases of minority winners as well as to re-enfranchise voters disenfranchised by AV. But if there were many instances of sound AV ‘majorities’ being overturned by the Approval Voting result, then this would add pressure to reform the voting system further, which could only be a good thing.

So what would I call my version of enhanced AV, given that the name ‘AV+’ already exists and refers to another system that seeks to mitigate AV’s disproportionality? Perhaps we could call it ‘AV on approval’! I for one would return it to the manufacturer with a resounding no vote!


4 Responses

  1. […] As with the absence of a full debate and referendum on the options for the Upper House, and as with the total lack of any suggestion that the English people as a whole should be offered a referendum on an English parliament, we’re also not being offered a full debate about different electoral systems and a proper referendum that includes at least one proportional option. Basically, this referendum is a choice between two first-past-the-post systems, as the Alternative Vote is just a mitigated form of FPTP that doesn’t even do what it says on the tin. […]

  2. Good one mate! I’m against the AV and all sorts of pseudo-PR systems as minority parties will be Permanently Retarded and people will never have a taste of what alternative parties can possibly do and think, in terms of, having their views aired more publicly once they get seats in government. If they can’t even aspire to being a minority party within government, we can forget about their ever being in government at all. Another significant point is that which you raised, that it is just another version of FPTP. Good point that.


  3. […] system. I won’t reiterate the more detailed points I made in my previous discussions on AV (here and here). What I want to do here is set up a series of criteria against which to measure the […]

  4. […] that all voters will be entirely clear about in their minds. In any case, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the AV system treats each preference as potentially equal: in other words, the Lib Dem candidate […]

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